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Threatened, harassed, killed

Stephanie Höppner/ cbAugust 17, 2013

From Cairo to Alexandria, the fight between Egyptian security forces and Islamist protesters is increasingly spiraling out of control. The danger is also growing for journalists. Four of them have already been killed.

Egyptians help a woman suffering from tear gas exposure after canisters were fired by Egyptian police as they try to disperse a pro-Morsi camp in a street leading to Rabaa al-Adawiya in Cairo on August 14, 2013. Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Image: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Faces contorted with pain, blood-drenched bandages - the increasingly violent conflict in Egypt seems to be close, even in Germany, thousands of kilometers away. The emotional pictures right from the center of the action have become the standard in today's media coverage. But that has its price: photographers and video journalists risk their lives while competing for moving pictures.

The press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders" (RSF) counted four journalists who had been killed since the violent clearing of the protest camps on Wednesday (14.08.2013).

Portrait Christoph Dreyer (Photo: Reporter ohne Grenzen/faceland berlin)
Dreyer: cases of killed journalists have to be investigatedImage: Reporter ohne Grenzen/faceland berlin

Shot dead by snipers

British cameraman Mick Deane, who worked for Sky News, was reportedly killed by one single shot fired by a sniper when he was reporting from the riots in front of the Rabaa-Al-Adawiya-Mosque in Cairo. Habiba Ahmed Abd Al-Aziz, who was covering the events for the newspaper Xpress based in the United Arab Emirates, was also shot by a sniper in the same square. The identity of the snipers and their backers remains in the dark, said Christopher Dreyer, a spokesman for Reporters Without Borders in Germany. The organization demands that the cases are investigated by Egyptian authorities.

The Associated Press reported that state-owned Al-Akhbar said its journalist Ahmed Abdel Gawad was shot dead during violence at one of the pro-Morsi protest camps. Photojournalist Mosaab El-Shamy was also killed at one of the protest camps.

Print, radio, online and TV journalists in Egypt are currently threatened or prevented from doing their job. Iman Hilal, photographer at the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, was supposedly threatened with a knife by Morsi supporters, who allegedly forced him to turn over his camera's memory card.

Multiple journalists, among them two reporters from France, were supposedly beaten. In the RSF ranking, which evaluates the state of press freedom in a country, Egypt was demoted to the lowest ranks. The country is now in 158th place out of 179.

A protester supporting ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi carries an injured demonstrator (R) during clashes outside Azbkya police station at Ramses Square in Cairo, August 16, 2013. (Photo: Reuters /Amr Abdallah Dalsh )
An injured protester in front of blazing flames: taking such spectacular photos can be dangerous for journalistsImage: Reuters

No entry to the camp

Volker Schwenck's team has also encountered violence. The head of a German TV station's Cairo office and his crew wanted to interview a Christian shop owner. "We filmed him in front of his burnt-out store and had just started with the interview, when a mob formed that was opposed to the interview," Schwenck told DW. The journalists were threatened, their camera was taken away and the memory card destroyed. The perpetrators also wanted the car. Fortunately, the TV crew was able to make it back to the office unharmed.

"It's not easy to shoot footage right now," Schwenck said. "Anywhere you go where there are non-organized crowds, you face a certain risk that the mood could turn - that somebody feels bothered. And then of course there are also criminals, who abuse the security vacuum."

So far, journalists have been safest when they worked with Muslim Brotherhood representatives, who are specifically assigned to the press and also arrange for interview partners. "Those are people who have been taught to toe the party line, you realize that," Schwenck said. "But at least you can work there."

In other cases, like that of DW's Cairo correspondent Matthias Sailer, reporting was heavily impeded from the get-go. When he wanted to move closer to one of the Islamist protest camps, Sailer was stopped, searched and denied entry. "In the state newspapers, they write that journalists had unlimited access during the clearing of the protest camps, but the exact opposite was actually the case," he said.

"Burned into our brains"

In addition to the physical threat, journalists also have to deal with enormous psychological stress. Sailer met colleagues, who saw the impromptu morgues in mosques: "They said straight out: Those pictures will forever be burned into our brains."

A man reacts next to dead members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi at the El Eyman mosque in Cairo, August 15, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Covered bodies in a mosque: many journalists will never forget these picturesImage: Reuters

German TV journalist Schwenck has come up with his own strategy to deal with the horror. In the day-to-day work, one acquires an "armor," he said. And the technical gear provides distance for the crew: "Cameramen tell me: I see everything through my camera's viewer, so most of the time, it's black-and-white. And then it's not too bad."